The Tokyo Zodiac Murders
Is it possible to solve a decades ago murder that has engrossed Japan in an era before mobile telecommunications and the internet? This is the premise behind Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, which is (I am told) a member of the honkaku (‘authentic’) murder mysteries. The honkaku type is characterized by a detailed approach outlining the facts available to the police at the time and then updated as the novel’s amateur detectives make progress in solving the crime. Once the exposition of all relevant facts is completed, the author then challenges the readers to solve the mystery, before then providing the full explanation of how the various crimes were committed, where, when, how, by whom and why. It is, apparently, a very successful genre and I can see why.
In this case, the main action begins in 1936 in pre-WWII Japan, where a well-known artist has been found murdered inside an archetypal locked room. Other crimes are subsequently revealed and appear to be linked to the artist’s apparent desire to recreate or somehow bring to life Azoth, which is the personification of Mercury, which in turn is the agency behind alchemical transformation. The police investigating this crime do what they are able to do but the mystery is not resolved – this is what a reader of honkaku literature would expect. The narrator and his partner explore what is known and discuss possible solutions to the extraordinary crimes, while also pointing out why the more obvious answers cannot be the case. Interactions between protagonists and those involved in the crimes in different ways help to drive development of the plot and help to unlock further clues. The attentive reader should be able to work out what is going on or, at least, from some reasonably well-supported hypotheses which are likely, in due course, to be shown to be wrong in whole or in part. There is a slight problem from which contemporary readers might suffer which is that of a lack of understanding of Japanese society of the 1930s and this can present a barrier which must be overcome before the reader can properly evaluate the situation. There is such a barrier here but it is not insurmountable. The prose is quite clear, thanks to translator Ross Mackenzie, if a little pallid at times. However, the reader is at least not deflected by linguistic bedazzlement.
The story is driven forward by the slightly hapless narrator and his friend the enigmatic and somewhat driven Kiyoshi, who have a relationship slightly reminiscent of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. They whizz about Japan, using that country’s legendarily efficient and interlocking public transport system and at the end, of course, Kiyoshi reverses the odds and reveals the details. It is an interesting journey.